Math Anxiety in Seattle

I’m back in Seattle for year 3 of my annual West Coast tour, which consists of visiting my sister and her brood in Seattle, and giving a workshop at Pacific Science Center (note there is no “The” at the beginning of the label, which I find kind of odd.) Last year my “tour” was Seattle & Portland for the workshop “Wiring the Brain for Mathematics: Neuroscience & Numeracy,” and I so much positive feedback that I thought I should surely return with a workshop on Math Anxiety, which is a kind of sequel, in that it focuses squarely on the connections between math and the emotions. As I stated in the workshop, mathematics is the most emotional subject taught in school, because it is the one that makes us question our “intelligence” each day.

There was a smaller group this year, about 30 teachers from as far away as Orcas Island and Bridgeport, out on the Eastern Plains; many of them were veterans of the “Wiring the Brain” workshop in 2010 and ’11, so it was comforting to see some familiar faces.

Highlights of Seattle’s “Math Anxiety” Workshop

Of course, the wonderful energy, humor and thoughtfulness that the participants bring. I was really taken by the kindess and respect shown to one of our members who had a hearing deficit and asked people to stand while asking questions and adding comments.

At one point during the workshop, we discussed the idea of math having lots of “rules,” and I brought up the change I made to my practice recently to eliminate the use of the word “rule” when describing a process in mathematics. I asked why I would eschew the term “rule” in mathematics, and we discussed the idea that rules often seem authoritarian and arbitrary, as well as emanating from a “higher power.” Instead I suggested that we use the word “property” in place, in order to emphasize that mathematics is a system, and that as this system developed, it was found to have certain characteristics that are known as “properties.” For example, the number 6 has certain properties: it is even, it is divisible by 1, 2 and 3, and it is the first perfect square number.

During lunch I happened to sit with Cheryl for a bit, and we examined  some of her students’ papers and discussed the idea of how her third graders understood the process of creating equivalent fractions through the use of a “rule.” Clearly, the word “property” would not be a good term to replace this; we agreed that thinking about this as a “method” would be more appropriate, in the same way we would teach any other process, like baking a cherry pie or cleaning a bassoon.

All of which brings to mind a way to sum up this idea of replacing authoritarian language with more descriptive language: There are no “rules” in mathematics: there are properties and methods. Perhaps we need to put this idea front and center by titling our courses and textbooks that way:  Mathematics: Properties & Methods.”


About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
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